gamescom 2012: How To Not Tell A Story – Interview with Warren Spector
“If you’ve played games like Deus Ex, or some of the other games I’ve worked on, they are all about choice and consequence. You decide how you’re going to interact with the world – I show you the result of your choices and your story at the end of it is unique, and what you did is different from what every other player did. We did some of that with the first Epic Mickey, but we’re now doing way more and with this game…. when you make a choice, it really matters.”
That was legend of the video games industry, Warren Spector, introducing me to the world of Epic Mickey and making a point about how the narrative in games is presented to us as the player. I could have continued the conversation with him for hours. It’s a hard thing to explain; you can think you might know everything there is to know about video games… but then you’re put in a room with somebody like Warren Spector and you very quickly realise you know absolutely nothing. I take a sip of water, compose myself and continue with our conversation before swinging back around to talk about story and how best to tell it.
As you’re creating Epic Mickey do you look back through Disney’s history and archives to pull out little things that people may not necessarily know about that you then bring into the forefront, much like you did with Oswald?
Thats exactly what we do – everybody in my studio is now a Disney historian, it’s amazing. When we started the project everybody would come to me and be like “what should we do? Is this a Disney thing, or what Disney thing can we use to do this? Is there some Disney memorabilia that we can use for a gas mask?” I used to have to be the one to answer those questions but now I don’t need to. We used to go trawling through Disney’s archives and those guys are great at helping us find stuff that we think is cool and meets our requirements. I don’t want to reveal too much because I want players to discover it as they play but we’re showing a new level here, based on Frontierland which is something I’d always wanted to do. It was there in 1955 when Disney Land opened and its changed dramatically over the years, so there’s lots of stuff there that we can look back at and remind people about.
Everything in Epic Mickey is based on something real; the concept artists now know that when they come to me with a concept they put the sketch in the middle of the screen and then around it will be photos of part of a ride or the original blueprints used to create the thing, or even the original concept art that they were inspired by or the shot from the film they were inspired by. So they surround their concept pieces with the real Disney stuff because they know I wont bug them with questions asking “so where did this come from?”
Do Disney take stuff the other way though? Have they taken anything you and your team have created and woven it into their lore if you like?
Well, that’s an interesting question… I can tell you that… this is pretty amazing that Disney even let us do this. Oswald never spoke in a Disney story ever and the gremlins, which where created in World War II, never spoke. They never had voices, nor did Ortensia, Oswald’s girlfriend. So we got to work with the guys at Disney Character Voice, which is a department at Disney that handles all of this, and we provided them with character descriptions, the scripts that were used to audition potential voice actors and now if you ever hear Oswald speaking in a movie or the Parks or any place it’s going to be our game Oswald. Same goes for Gus gremlin; if you ever hear him its going to be our Gus gremlin. Not only have we honored Disney’s past but we’ve also effected Disney’s future, which is really cool.
So it’s not just an exception for the game then?
Oh no, this is it. In the United States… well in English, Frank Welker, who is an amazing voice actor, is the voice of Oswald and Carrie Elwis is the voice of Gus. Forever. In the same way that Walt Disney was the voice of Mickey Mouse who handed it off to a guy called Jimmy McDonald, who passed it on to Wayne Allwine, who handed it off to Bret Iwan who is doing it now. There are official voices that define the characters and we’ve got to define some of those characters.
You’ve become part of Disney’s legacy then.
Yeah, exactly. We are part of Disney’s future and there are a few other things… but I can’t really talk about them just yet.
When you’re trying to get across the narrative of the game… from looking at it at first glance, to a lot of people it does appear as a kid’s game or for the younger generation…
Why are Mario and Sonic games not for a younger generations then? Why are Zelda games loved by everybody who plays them? What about Ratchet and Clank – is that adult? You’re firing goo guns that create balls of jelly, your making things dance with a gun. I hear you and I certainly have heard that plenty, but I don’t understand it at all and I think that Epic Mickey is the most mature game that you’ll see at gamescom.
I hear you and I certainly have heard that plenty, but I don’t understand it at all and I think that Epic Mickey is the most mature game that you’ll see at gamescom.
Sorry, go ahead, make your point.
You’ve thrown me… I did start to ask that question a bit stupid though so I’ll try again. With a Disney film, you’d watch it when you’re a kid over and over again. I’m pretty sure me and my brother wore out two copies of The Lion King on VHS, but then you watch it again in your twenties and you find something completely different, you take something more meaningful away from the experience. That’s the kind of story that all Disney films tell, but is trying to tell that kind of story in game form an easy thing to do?
First of all trying to tell a story in game form at all is not an easy thing to do. When you try to tell a story you’re either telling too much to a player, I mean there is no point in telling a story to a player. If thats what you’re doing go make a movie, get out of my meeting. The trick in any game is telling a story with players – that may be hard to understand but my point is that it’s not my story, its your story. The way I approach story in games is to just ask you a bunch of questions and that’s literally what I think.
In the first Epic Mickey all I wanted to do was ask “how important are friends and family to you?” and every choice you make, everything you do in the game is you answering that question and me showing you what your answer means.
In a movie, most other games or in a novel – the author, director or the designer would say “here’s what I think family means and how important I think they are” and all you can do is interpret that. The challenge for me is to ask questions and to give players the freedom to answer them. This is a really long answer I know but that is the hard thing about telling stories in games…
How do I not tell a story? How do I let a player discover their own story?